"I think better when I'm moving," says Lois Nesbitt, a living, breathing illustration of the active lifestyle, as she steps outdoors for a walking interview. The longtime yoga instructor and teacher-trainer who lives and works in East Hampton and New York City, specializes in helping older adults maintain their strength, stamina, flexibility, and balance.
Though the Centers for Disease Control said in 2022 that the average life expectancy in the U.S. had fallen slightly during the last two pandemic years, now standing at about 77, advances in medical care, an increased focus on healthy living, and greater affluence have all contributed to longer life spans for some adults. These days, many are living well into their 80s and 90s.
"We don't have data on how bodies truly withstand nine decades," Ms. Nesbitt said. "What's going to happen as we live another 20 or 30 years longer, almost half a generation? We're all kind of in an experiment together."
Here's what she has to say about physical activity, and yoga in particular, for adults aging into their 70s and up.
E.H.S.: How important are movement and flexibility routines for aging bodies?
L.N.: Let's first talk about what happens as you age. As we age, the main thing I find that is probably the source of all other issues is, the body dries up. We dehydrate. As you age you just don't retain water as well, so everything sort of stiffens up, like a dry sponge instead of a wet sponge. So you're going to have a loss of flexibility. And you also have the metabolism slowing down, so healing is slower, digestion is slower, cognitive function is slower -- everything is not working as quickly or efficiently as it used to. . . . We want to keep moving because that helps with our overall strength and with proprioception, which is the knowledge of where your body is in space, so you can feel up and down and sideways. The more we move, the more we keep those neuromuscular pathways active. And this is true at any age.
E.H.S.: What happens to a person physically if they're not getting some form of regular exercise as they get older?
L.N.: I heard something sobering: People who are bedridden in hospitals, even for two or three days, experience bone loss, no matter how old they are. We need to keep moving. If you don't use it, you lose it. I think that is exacerbated by the aging process. The dehydration in the body is just going to happen. But the stiffness, the weakness -- we didn't talk about the heart slowing down and the breathing not working as efficiently -- you can increase your heart health and lung capacity with movement. If your heart is not functioning well you are going to age faster, because you're not getting the sustenance you need to the tissues, and you're not cleansing out the debris and the toxins. All the downsides of aging will accelerate. If you're exercising, you can plateau it or even put it in reverse.
E.H.S.: In your experience, how closely tied together are physical exercise and mental well-being for older adults?
L.N.: I think they're inseparable for everyone. They say "move a muscle, change a thought." I find that if I'm lost in a cloud of confusion or I'm in a dark mood, if I can get up and move around, I can shake it off. I think it's important for everybody, but for older people, for a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency and self-esteem, being able to get up and move around is empowering. Anything someone can do that creates a sense of strength -- "I can do this, I'm not helpless" -- is huge. Also, for many people there is a social component to exercise. Beach walks, classes, whatever it is, you make that connection.
E.H.S.: How should a person go about finding the type of movement that's right for them?
L.N.: Let the buyer beware. Movement modalities are poorly or not always regulated -- that isn't just yoga, that can be fitness training and everything else . . . I think the best thing is to shop around and talk to people you know, just as if you were researching a car to buy. If you're going to take a group class, I'd suggest asking if you can come and observe first. Observing how a teacher works in a class, or seeing a YouTube sampling of the class, is super helpful. If you get to talk to someone one on one, notice if they're asking about your specific needs. "How can I serve you?" Not "I do this, I do that." . . . And if you have the resources, work with someone one on one to get a grounding before you jump into a group class. If you have a massage therapist or body worker, they'll usually know what to suggest. If you start a class and it's not working out, be ready to move on. If it's too easy, be ready to move on. If it's too hard and you're pushing, pushing, pushing -- if there's no joy of it and you're at risk of injuring yourself and you're in pain -- that's not good, either. But be willing to up your game. What's challenging right now may be easier in six months.
E.H.S.: Is yoga right for everyone?
L.N.: It depends on the kind of yoga. It really depends on the teacher. . . . Technically, yoga could be for anybody, including people in chairs. My dad was 94 when we started, and we did chair yoga. I kept him moving and challenged him and he said he felt stronger after two lessons. It's never too late. There's always something that can be done as long as a teacher is resourceful enough, creative enough, and willing enough, and as long as the student is clear about their goals.
E.H.S.: What kinds of exercises work best for someone advancing into their 70s and up?
L.N.: There's body type and there's a person's history -- have they had a desk job and sedentary lifestyle, or have they been a physical laborer? Anyone who lifts heavy stuff all day has different issues. What kinds of sports pursuits have they done? Golfers might have a nice twist in their spine. A tennis player or pitcher will have a dominant arm that will be a lot stronger, but stiffer. Are there any injuries, past or present? And what are their goals? Why do people want to be flexible? How functional is it to be flexible? Stretching is good in general. Muscles are elastic, like rubber bands. The more elasticity you have in a muscle, the better the blood flow and movement. Stretching is healthy, but it's not an end, in my book. . . . What I would look for is what kind of movements are you not doing daily, and reverse them. If you sit too much, stand up and move around and walk. Do some lunges. Open your shoulders.
E.H.S.: When should someone loop in a doctor or specialist?
L.N.: Always, and alongside what you're doing. A good doctor in an annual checkup should ask, "How physically active are you?". . . You do want to get some protocols from your doctor: What's safe for you to do? But do beware that many doctors have this "no yoga for you" sort of thing. If I'm working with someone one on one, I always ask if I can speak to the doctor. I think it's prudent to ask your doctor to get really specific.
E.H.S.: What's your number-one piece of advice for adults who want to stay healthy and active as they get older?
L.N.: I have a physical one and a mental one. I used to tell my students to move for one hour every day, and then I realized it might be more important for them to move every hour. Get up and start moving around! Go make a cup of tea, or do your laundry! Don't sit for too long . . . Move at least every hour and try to have a variety of movements. Don't do the same workout or the same positions. Pick up things with your left hand instead of your right. And my other piece of advice is to be adaptable. Adapt to whatever age is bringing for you -- it's different for everybody. Whatever your particular package is, work with it. Don't deny or ignore it or push through it or compete. Just adapt. Figure out where you are. . . . Be willing to find what's workable. There's always something that's possible.